Follies Faithfuls

Esther's Most Loyal Laughers

by Robert Faires They love to laugh. Often. More than anything, that's why they visit that corner of Sixth Street again and again. The Follies always make them laugh. They are the Esther's regulars, the hardcore fans of Austin's musical comedy revue, the ones who have seen Shannon Sedwick and crew dozens of times, who visit them at least a few times every year (some many more than that), who bring friends and family along to baptize them in the joys of the Follies. In the aquatic mindset that has always been central to this troupe that takes its name from swim star Esther Williams, they're the folks in the deep end of the Pool.

They may be 22 or 82, single or married, they may work at home or for the IRS, but they're one in their feelings for the Follies: They love them. They love Sedwick pulling a hardware store out of her dress as Patsy Cline singing "Little Things," Margaret Wiley as the Mother of All Hot Mamas Chi Chi La Bomba, Ray Anderson making magic, the flood of street gags in "Cry Me a River." They love the writing ("extraordinary"), the professionalism ("Esther's is always on"), and the Follies' feel for Austin. Henry Holman nails the sentiment of all the fans when he says, "They ain't nothin' else like it. I ain't never been disappointed in a show." Considering these folks have all seen upwards of 50 shows, that's saying something.

Most got hooked on Esther's years ago, in the group's first space a few doors west of the current Pool. As Tina Watson says, "You had to enter through the alley [between Fifth and Sixth]." "There was no air," recalls Rik Kelly, "and the place would be packed, so it would get really hot. But the cast used to do the costume changes in a dressing room by the entrance, so you would go out at intermission and there was the cast. You really felt like part of the whole event." Watson remembers that unity, too: "At the end of the show, when they'd sing `I'll Be Loving You Esther's,' everyone would stand up and sing with them."

It was the kind of experience that inspired return visits. Watson says she and her friend Larry Martin "would go more than once a month. We'd see Esther's, then go dancing, then stop at Mrs. Johnson's for hot donuts." Kelly and his pals went even more often: "We probably went every two weeks. I was back at UT then. We were very poor but in the early days, the shows were free. `Sister Aimee Semple McPherson' passed the hat at the end of the show."

Times have changed. The Follies no longer get by on revival-style donations (tickets are $12-$14), and Kelly is no longer a starving student. But while he doesn't go twice a month, Kelly, like all the regulars, enjoys going now as much as he ever has. The Follies still make him laugh. Often. These are Esther's most loyal laughers.

Allison Taylor is the scholar among the Follies faithfuls, and she has the diploma to prove it. Sitting on her dresser at home is a certificate that reads "Masters of Comic Appreciation from Esther's Follies." It was given to her by the Pool crew in recognition of her ardent support. For two-and-a-half years, Taylor has been to Esther's every week. This woman adores the Follies.

Like most love affairs, hers began innocently. "My sister and I have birthdays very close together, and we went to celebrate our birthdays," she says. "We enjoyed it so much and we knew there were changes on a regular basis, so we went back to see the different things." And went back. And back. "Our folks would say, `Y'all are going again?' And we'd say, `Yeah,' and off we went."

"It was a couple of months before the folks at Esther's started to notice," Taylor says. But once they did, they came to value her presence. That became evident in May. "They knew that I was graduating from UT," says Taylor. "I went in on a Friday to see the show and they had this thing waiting for me. It was a test, questions about different skits, like what is the first thing that Patsy Cline pulls out of her dress and what are the bartenders' names and stuff like that. I passed it, and at the end of the show, they gave me a diploma."

As befits a person with a Masters in Esther's, Taylor is perpetually working to enlighten those around her about the Follies. "I work for UT now and every couple of weeks, I get on the computer bulletin boards and say, `Y'all come.' I'm trying to get the entire university to have a sense of humor."

Henry Holman can't tell you exactly how many times he has seen the Follies, but this 82-year-old regular who's been to every home they've had - "at the place that burned down, at the theatre up the street, at that place up the corner from where they are now," and at the current Pool - will tell you "I wouldn't say there was a month go by that I didn't go see Esther's."

The longtime Austinite (ask him about running down the Avenue as a "cotton-headed, freckle-faced boy") prizes the Follies' political fare. "I like politics," he says. "Politics is sort of my avocation. And they pull off some good ones on the politicians." That compliment ought not be taken lightly from this viewer. He has traveled the land and seen the best in the field of political satire. To him, not even Washington, D.C.'s top troupe compares: "I went to the Capitol Steps a couple of times, but it just doesn't have the wit and all Esther's Follies has."

As for seeing the Follies do the same routines again, that doesn't bother Holman. "I like some of the old ones they do over and over again. I like to go back and see things over. I know I always missed a few jokes in between. In fact, I'm fixin' to go Thursday. Come down and see me."

For Tina Watson, the Follies are more than a source of entertainment. They're insurance. "My friend Tommy and I spend every New Year's Eve at Esther's," she says. "My friend says whatever you're doing on New Year's is what you'll be doing the rest of the year. I love to laugh, so I go to Esther's, where I know I'll laugh a lot."

However, New Year's isn't the only time Watson does Esther's. The Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages employee dives into the Pool about once a month. "I like the way it makes me feel," she says. "It's good for the soul." And Watson keeps a bit of that good feeling in her home year-round. "I have an old picture of the Blandscrew Sisters. It has Shannon and Linda Wetherby and De Lewellen, taken when they were singing at a club on Barton Springs, The Treehouse. It hangs in my living room. All the girls look exactly the same. They're still gorgeous."

Watson is another regular who delights in bringing loved ones into the Esther's fold. "Everyone is happy to be turned on to the Follies, even the hardest of the hard to please. I took my parents once and my Dad can be very hard to please. I said, `Dad, if you want to leave at intermission, we will.' And he loved it so much, he wouldn't even leave his seat at intermission. I think most every time I go, I end up taking someone. I've even taken my niece who is three years old and she just sat there with a big smile on her face through the whole show, loving it."

Mary Lou and David Conrad are two regulars who have not only watched the fun on stage, they've been a part of it. Mary Lou's moment in the spotlight came during their very first visit in 1982. "We were walking down Sixth Street and we just went in. We were with another couple - Donny and Tim Timmermann - who celebrate their anniversary around the same time we do ours. The warm-up act was Boyd Vance, and while he was singing, he came down the aisle and sat in my lap. Then the next thing I knew, I was part of the act with the juggler." From that point on, the Conrads were faithfuls, but they had no more brushes with the stage until their most recent visit.

"We were just down there a week ago," says Mary Lou, "with the same couple - we were celebrating our 43rd anniversary, the Timmermanns their 44th - and Chi Chi La Bomba came down the aisle and picked on David. She fluffed up his hair - he has a full head of silver hair and he said to me later, `I think she thought it was a toupe!' Anyway, he picked her up! He put his arms around her waist and lifted her. Well, he was picked as the best of the men, and she brought him on stage and gave him the maracas and put a sombrero on him. He's quite reserved, but when she told him, `Give me some booty,' he turned around and shook his booty!"

Rik Kelly is the class historian among the faithfuls. He recalls the casts and sketches of the first Follies in striking detail. "In the early days, it was a different show every week and the shows had a lot of variety. Some of the pieces, it was years before they got them down. You'd see things like "Swine Lake" start as small jokes, and they would bring them back and you'd watch them grow until they were full-blown. They used to do the "Bad Joke of the Week." It wasn't always clean, but it was always bad. They would do whole skits around political events. We had Dolph Briscoe for governor, and they used to do a funny thing on Dolph and Janey taking over the world.

"I think one reason we kept going back was they were so in tune with current events, with what had happened that day or two days ago. I was always amazed that they had the time to stay on top of all that and put a show together. I think Doug Dyer had a lot to do with that. I really miss him; his stuff was so cutting edge. In the early days, anything could happen. It was such a collection of Austin in one place at one time.

"Now here it is almost 20 years later, and I guess we all grew up together. It's been amazing to watch Esther's change with Austin. The continuum has always been Shannon. You gotta give her credit for holding it together all these years. Sometimes I wonder if Shannon's gonna be there at 75 or 80, doing Patsy Cline and telling Medicare jokes, doing spins in her wheelchair. I think she will. And I'll be there, too. n

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